Anjali Menon can be credited with having redefined cinema writing in Malayalam cinema, today. With a fresh perspective on Malabari culture and refreshing and more youthful representation, Ustad Hotel, her most celebrated film till date is still running at theatres in the city, one month after its release. DNA gets chatty with this pretty scriptwriter and director in an exclusive tête-à-tête, where we talk about her Calicut connections, the Malabari in her and Ustad Hotel…
Ustad Hotel is a movie that has to be written by someone who loves Calicut; how did the whole idea of writing a story like this begin?
Soon after I discovered I was pregnant, I moved to Calicut to be with my mother. As she and the rest of the family showered me with affection as only Kozhikodans truly can... I began to think of the peculiarity of the local culture especially with food and hospitality. I started to read up about the Arab past and for some reason ended up with Sufi philosophy. Many folks ask me if I had researched the hotel industry, food preparation etc but the truth is that the core of my research was around Sufism, which celebrates food, music, dance, creativity, art, romance and finds the divine in all such aspects of life. It seemed natural that the film, too should be such an exploration of a new generation person into such mode of thought and life.
The story revolves around a typical Mappila family from Calicut, with several lingual references, accent references and other signifiers — how did you manage to get all that so wonderfully recreated in your script?
My family is based in Calicut and our closest friends have been from the community — so personal firsthand references have been the most helpful.
Film buffs and critics alike, are praising the movie as being representative of a new form of Malayalam cinema — a cinema that represents the Malabar more truly, unlike mainstream Malayalam cinema representation (that comes from Central and South perspective). Do you agree and if so, was there a conscious decision to load the script with such beautiful signifiers?
Any script or film deserves to be treated with full respect for where it is located because at the end there is a reason why a certain story is set in a certain place. To me, it is the most basic thing to find signifiers from within the location to propel the story ahead.
Calicut has never been portrayed so beautifully. Are you a fan of the Malabar coastline and were your own memories woven into the script?
North Malabar has a particular cultural ethos that cuts across communities and we had hoped to bring that flavour into the film. I love this culture and am proud to be A part of it. It is important to credit Anwar Rasheed in his dedication to do so. Despite being from South Kerala, Anwar moved to Calicut and stayed on the beach for two months and quite literally fell in love with the place and the warmth of its people. When he translated this positive experience onscreen, Ustad Hotel found its soul.
Ustad Hotel: by any chance, was the ‘temple of biryani’ (such an oxymoron) based on a real-life eatery?
No, it is not, but it is based on the wonderful experiences that most of us have had in old-world eateries all over the world.
Your characters are bursting with life and each of them has a tale to say. Who were you inspired by for each of the characters?
Real people mostly. Also, I think the casting has imbued each of them with rich layers. Once again, credit to the director!
The obsession with a good cup of suleimani and the paraphernalia that surrounds it has been much appreciated — is this something you created, or have you heard of those anecdotes before?
Am thrilled with the response to our little suleimani story — I am a complete foodie and I believe that every time we consume something we must give it full attention to enjoy every flavour. That is the root of the story. Distinct flavours of tea, sweetness and sourness come together in a suleimani creating a blend of experience that stimulates us — quite like romance, I think.
Did you alter the script once you met the cast? Did Dulquer, Nithya or Thilakan influence you in anyway to add to their characters?
The script was done but we were revising through multiple drafts, so it was possible to tweak certain aspects of the characters once the casting was done.
What did you think of the OST by Gopi Sunder and the lyrics by Rafeeq Ahmed? And did you like any of the songs in particular and why?
I think Gopi Sunder and Rafeeque Ahmed have grown the songs from within the emotional moments of the film and that really works. My favourite song or rather theme is the introductory Sufi theme, Nisariga that comes on when Ustad Hotel is introduced — it’s really intoxicating and yet intricate! I have a teeny-weeny connection there, because they were looking for the background chorus words for the track and I suggested Subhanallah, which is what was finally used.
Finally, what can we look forward to, from you as a writer or as a director in the year to come?
I am working on a romantic comedy, which I shall be directing next year — something light and cheeky!